Allison Moorer on Setting Performing Aside to Take a Job With the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum: ‘It’s a Way to Give Back to What Saved Me’

“Musicians often say, if you have a plan B, you’re gonna use it,” says singer-songwriter Allison Moorer. “And, you know, I didn’t for a long time. So I’m grateful that I have the ability to do something like this. You don’t really see this very often, do you?”

The this is Moorer’s new job: a writer-editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. When the Nashville institution announced a list of new hires and promotions on Thursday, it included some top names brought in from the realms of journalism and other fields, but Moorer’s stood out: She is someone you might expect to see mentioned in one of the museum’s floating exhibits. As illustrious as the entire staff of the Hall may be, it’s safe to say that Moorer will be the only one who could potentially decorate her cubicle with certificates for nominations she’s pulled in from the Academy Awards, the ACMs and the Grammys.

But Moorer has been pursuing other paths for a while now, apart from the recording and touring grind. Notably, she got her MFA and wrote two of the best memoirs that have ever been written by someone known primarily as a musician, 2019’s “Blood,” about her life growing up in Alabama with sister and fellow singer Shelby Lynne, and 2021’s “I Dream He Talks to Me,” about raising an autistic son. And so pursuing a new career that made some use of that extra-musical editorial prowess made some sense.

What made the most sense, going back years for her, was not trying to flog her wares on the road anymore — something that many artists of her approximate age and skill set will be able to relate to, whether or not they have their own plan B.

“I figured out probably on my second or third record — so this was a long time ago — that I did not want to be playing the same clubs when I was 45 as I was when I was 25,” Moorer says, calling in from her new desk job. “And I wasn’t exactly the most commercial thing going, so I just kind of looked around me and saw that people who were in the lane I was in did tend to just kind of play the same clubs at 45 as they did when they were 25 … if they were lucky.”

Moorer stopped touring consistently when her son was born 14 years ago, and “I knew very quickly that I was going to have to probably do something else to earn a living, because I just couldn’t manage it all. There’s no way you can do an artist career if you’re a wife, a mother, whatever else you’re called to be, and particularly if you have a child with special needs. My son needed therapy, and I knew that he wasn’t gonna get it unless I stayed put. And so I started trying to figure that out that long ago.”

“it takes a lot of effort to keep that kind of career rolling. And the truth is, outside of our genre and roots music, people don’t have careers that are that long. … When you’re 20, it isn’t weird to jump up in front of people on stage and go, ‘Hey, look at me.’ As a 51-year-old woman, I don’t want to do that. I’m over it. I don’t want to be picked apart. You know, it’s hard for women. Everybody wants to know why you don’t look like you did when you were 22. For a lot of people, it’s ‘Why don’t you sound like you did when you were 22?’ It can make you want to hide it really can. I used to not have much vulnerability, or I certainly didn’t show it, about doing things like that. But as I got older, and started becoming aware of who I was and got out of defense mechanism and out of a complete and total 24/7 trauma response to the world, I started going, ‘Hmm, this is the most nuts thing a person could do.’ It was also a door I walked through because I didn’t have a guide. I didn’t have parents; I didn’t have anyone telling me anything.” (Moorer was orphaned at a young age, as detailed in her “Blood” book.) “The guide I had was my sister, and I’m really lucky I had her. Art has always saved me and it has given me an incredible life. And this is just a continuation.”

One thought was that the master’s degree could lead to a teaching career, beyond whatever she learned in that process that helped with writing the two memoirs. “But honestly,” she says, “I started praying last August for a direction that would bring me peace of mind, and in January I found out about this job. And so I sent an email to Michael Gray [VP of museum services], and it worked out. Who knows where it will go, but I hope I’m here at the Hall of Fame for 20 years. I feel confident, because I said that prayer and I was led to something that is ultimately perfect for me. Because in this position I can pull all of those pieces together.

“This is the practical side of me coming out. It’s funny because a couple of people have asked me recently what sign I am, and I’m on the cusp of Gemini and Cancer. So that’s hard, to have that birthday, because it’s confusing — Geminis are out and do a lot of different things, and cancers are quite different. So, I’ve always dealt with all of these different facets of what I was interested in. I have never been like a laser beam: I must be a country star. Never. Never. And in fact, in some ways I went through the performing door because it was open. I’ve always had that side of me that wanted to just hunker down in the corner and read and not have anything to do with being that person that gets up on stage and does all that. I have loved that and it has given me an incredible life, but I’m almost 52 and I have stepped away from solo performing. First of all, there’s not the opportunity — I couldn’t put together a tour that made sense if my life depended on it! So it’s not worth putting all of my eggs in that basket.

“But I will say this, I’m still making music. Kenny Greenberg and I are working on a duo project that will not be under either one of our names, so that will be coming. We’re just two studio rats that like to get in there and make stuff up. And that’s one of my very, very, very favorite things to do.”

So maybe the duo will get to do a showcase at the Hall of Fame’s theater, and, as a museum staffer, handle the introduction herself? “I don’t know about dipping the beak two times,” she laughs. Plus, she points out, “It’s a rock record.” (Although, it should also be pointed out, the museum loves to include genre crossovers in its historical annotations.)

Moorer’s career stretches back to her 1998 debut, “Alabama Song,” the first of three albums she made for Universal Music’s Nashville imprints before she switched over to more Americana-favoring labels like Sugar Hill, Rykodisc and Thirty Tigers. Her highest-charting single wasn’t as a solo artist but as the featured guest on Kid Rock’s country radio version of “Picture” in 2002, at a point when she and that artist would have seemed a little less like oil and water. She was nominated by the Academy of Country Music for top new female vocalist in ’98, while her transition to Americana was signaled with a nom for the Americana Honors & Awards’ artist of the year category in 2004. She is remembered by film buffs for her 1999 Oscar nomination for “A Soft Place to Fall,” featured in the Robert Redford film “The Horse Whisperer.” She finally found a soft spot with the Grammys with then-husband Steve Earle, landing a joint nomination in the country field in 2008.

She is part of a musical family, having recorded and toured with sister Shelby Lynne in 2017 and produced and made occasional appearances with her husband, Hayes Carll. Moorer is mindful at this moment, jumping in as a historian and chronicler of country, of how her love for the music really goes back to her mother’s and grandmother’s influence on her and Shelby.

“The first thing I did as far as decorating my cubicle was bring a photograph that I had framed at home of my sister and me sitting on either side of our mama when we are 4 and 7. We’re singing into one microphone together, and my father’s to the left, my grandmother’s behind us, and two of my mother’s first cousins are behind us as well. And that’s the first thing I put in my cubicle, because that is why I’m here.

“My grandmother told me recently a story about how she decided to learn to sing harmony, and it was because she heard the Delmore Brothers. She said, ‘We had never heard harmony before. Nobody sang harmony with Jimmie Rodgers.’ Nobody was good enough to sing harmony with Jimmie Rodgers. But my grandmother was born in 1926. They had an old radio, and it was one of those that had to have the big battery — I’m sure you’ve heard about ’em. And she told me this story about how she and her brother Clyde walked in the dark to get the battery that somebody had charged up for him but couldn’t deliver all the way to the house down Bridal Path Road. They had left it up at the corner about probably a mile away. She and her brother Clyde walked in the dark to pick up the battery and take it back to the house so they could hear the Grand Ole Opry. And I said, ‘My God, Nanny, I can’t imagine. You see this little phone right here? I can find any song I want to hear right now.’ And she said, ‘Well, honey, that’s how bad we wanted it.’”

It might be corny to call this a soft place to fall, but the word “landing” does pop up in. “Landing here is a way for me to give back to what saved me, which is and has always been art,” she says. “Country music is a huge part of my family’s story. It’s culturally significant and it’s personally significant. So I am delighted to be a part of things here, because I can put all of my pieces into one intention, and that feels really good and meaningful to me at this point in my life.”

At the museum, she says, “Getting to see what is in this building, it’ll just knock you down over and over again. … One of the things I’ll be doing here is help with books. I was assigned my first manuscript to read, a book by an artist who has a contract to write an autobiography. And I think why they wanted me is because I can go in there and have a different perspective than someone else who would be assigned that book would. There’s so many talented people in this building, but from what I can tell, they really like to build out variation, so everything is covered.” Joining the museum staff at the same time as Moorer is another illustrious addition, journalist Jon Freeman, who was highly visible in the community recently as an editor at Rolling Stone Country.

“What I love about it is the depth, the layers, the connecting of the dots, because that’s just so rich to me. I’m almost through my second week, and I see how we don’t stop till we get to the bottom. And that just appeals to me as a writer, and I am delighted to be part of preserving what has come before and helping interpret that and being here to help figure out what’s coming next. It makes so much sense to me. Whereas the music business, it hasn’t always made that much sense to me. … I’m incredibly grateful that they they took a chance on me, and I really, really want to do a good job here – it’s important to me.”

She’s drawn back to a seminal moment in her childhood. “This would’ve been early ‘80s, so I probably 10 or 11 when I noticed this, but you remember that song ‘The Weekend’ by Steve Wariner? “There’s an acoustic guitar part in the chorus that is like a little paintbrush moment on that record. And I remember noticing it as a child and thinking, ‘Hmm, that’s an interesting choice.’ And then I remember putting that together with the acoustic sounds on the Billy Sherrill records that I had heard. And I was going, ‘Ohhhh… OK. I’m starting to see how these choices are made and what they do.’ And that’s where my head has always been.”

The puzzle is adding up for her, in all sorts of ways. “I think this is the best part of aging,” she says, “is you start to put your pieces together.”

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